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Cārvāka

CĀRVĀKA

CĀRVĀKA . A school of "materialists" thought to have been contemporary with early Buddhism, the Cārvāka school, or Cārvākas, has only scant evidence to attest to its existence. Writing in Hastings's Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, Louis de La Vallée Poussin noted that "a materialistic school, a system in the exact sense of the term" did not exist in India. Such an opinion was based not upon the failure of scholars to recognize such terms as lokāyata ("world-extended"?) or cārvāka, or the schools known by these names, but upon the ambiguity and obscurity that certainly surround their origin and exact connotation. In earlier literature the term lokāyata did not stand for a doctrine that is necessarily materialistic. In the Buddhist collection Sayutta Nikāya, two brahman s are described as followers of the Lokāyata view, proponents of which are credited with holding one or more of the following four propositions: everything exists; nothing exists; everything is a unity; and everything is a plurality. Buddhaghosa's commentary identifies the first and third propositions as "eternalist views" (sassata-ditthiyo ) and the second and fourth as "annihilationist views" (uccheda-ditthiyo ). Later, the Annihilationist views were regarded as consonant with materialism.

The use of the word cārvāka was also initially obscure. Some say that cārvāka was a name. Others propose a fanciful etymology, joining caru ("beautiful") with vāk ("speech") to render a compound connoting "attractive discourse"; thus understood, the doctrines of this school, which denounce religion and religiously founded morality as useless, would have been found attractive by the common man, himself a materialist at heart. In later writings, the name Lokāyata came to refer to the Cārvāka school, which was traced to a mythical founder Bhaspati. In the latter part of the twentieth century, a number of Lokāyata Bārhaspatya sūtra s were collated from various sources, but their authenticity is open to question.

According to the available sources, the Cārvāka taught that the world is as we see it, that is, as perceived by our sensory organs, and is devoid of all but a purely mechanical order or principle that can be confirmed by recourse to sense evidence alone. A moral or ethical order, admitted in one form or another by all other Indian schools (as in, for instance, their use of the paired terms dharma and adharma ), is thus denied as incompatible with empirical evidence. So too, an omniscient being, God, life after death, and ultimate reward or punishment for one's actions are all denied. It is for this reason, and for the fact that it denies the authority of the Vedas, that the school is termed nāstika, or negativist.

Cārvāka ethics, as might be expected, do recognize the claims of superior force and authority. Obedience to the king and to the state are recommended as a practical means of self-preservation; otherwise, a life given to the pursuit of pleasure and wealth is considered the ideal. Political power was deemed by the materialists to derive from the approval of the governed (lokasiddha bhavet rājā ); as a consequence, the ruler's mandate to govern was regarded as without divine or transcendental sanction. Cārvāka cosmology recognized four elementsearth, water, fire, and airas fundamental constituents of all things; when called on to explain the appearance of life or consciousness in material things when the elements themselves are devoid of any such powers or properties, the Cārvāka had recourse to a theory whereby the conjunction of certain elements is accidentally invested with properties missing in the original constituents. As evidence of this, they pointed to the power in the fermented drink to intoxicate, which is missing in the unfermented constituents. This empirical methodology might have been the precursor of scientific thought in India.

Cārvāka epistemology regards perception as the only valid source of knowledge and explicitly rejects inference. Eventually, the school produced a very sophisticated philosophical critique of the inductive premise in each act of inference. Sometimes the Cārvāka view is represented as a skeptical critique of knowledge, for, according to Jayarāśi, probably a proponent of Cārvāka doctrines, even sense evidence can mislead.

It is doubtful whether there was ever a well-entrenched traditional "school" called Cārvāka or Lokāyata, for we do not have available to us any independent texts of the classical period that are expressly affiliated with this school. The notable exception is the text of Jayarāśi called Tattvopaplavasiha, discovered and edited in 1940. In it, the author is revealed as a gifted dialectician. The work itself is a highly sophisticated critique of all the pramāa s, or valid sources of knowledge, criticizing both Vedic and non-Vedic schools. Theories of perception and inference of the Nyāyā, Buddhist, Sākhya, Mīmāsā, and Jain traditions are all faulted. If this text belongs to the Cārvāka-Lokāyata school, then we have to admit that this tradition consists not only of materialism, but combines elements of skepticism and agnosticism as well. In this light, it would be incorrect to credit the Cārvākas with advocacy of pure license and hedonism, charges that, after all, are found only in the writings of their opponents (as, for instance, Haribhadra and Mādhava). All told, the Cārvākas probably represent an anti-religious tradition that rejected religious and spiritual pursuits and sought the basis of moral and social order in human rationality.

See Also

Materialism.

Bibliography

Summary accounts of this school can be found in such compendia of Indian philosophy as Haribhadra's adarśanasamuccaya (seventh century) and Madhava's Sarvadarśanasa-graha (fourteenth century). Haribhadra was a Jain and hence belonged to a non-Vedic school; Mādhava was a Vaidika, probably a Vedāntin.

Modern studies include Hara Prasad Shastri's Lokayata (Oxford, 1925), a pioneering work that is both suggestive and illuminating; Dakshinaranjan Shastri's A Short History of Indian Materialism, Sensationalism and Hedonism, 2d ed. (Calcutta, 1957), a tenuous historical reconstruction of the school; and Debiprasad Chattopadhyaya's Lokāyata: A Study in Ancient Indian Materialism (New Delhi, 1959), a Marxist analysis of the history of Indian materialism, including useful materials from nonphilosophical literature.

Bimal Krishna Matilal (1987)

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